Demigods and demons

Classical Indian dance company to perform operatic ballet

Jealous gods, greedy demons, flirtatious romances, fiery battles, magic powers and fabled elixirs: All this drama, music and more is featured in "Samudra Manthan: Churning of the Milky Ocean," a classical Indian operatic ballet presented this Sunday, Nov. 1, in Woodside by Peninsula-based Vishwa Shanthi Performing Arts.

"Samudra Manthan" translates from Sanskrit as "churning of the ocean" and is a well-known story in Hindu mythology. It tells an intricate tale of demigods and their nemeses, the demons, who wrestle for control over the universe. The foes must form an uneasy alliance with each other in order to churn up the cosmic ocean in search of the Nectar of Immortality. Many treasures are discovered in that wondrous milky sea, and the ensuing competition over access to them ensures yet more drama and epic adventures.

The show is choreographed in the style of Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian dance traditionally performed in the Hindu temples of the Tamil Nadu state. The art form is said to have divine origins, with the god Shiva and his consort the goddess Parvati handing it down to a sage, Bharata, who then shared it with the people as a way to express and celebrate the glories of the gods and goddesses.

Bharatanatyam choreography is a very precise blend of dance and acting, with vibrantly costumed and bejeweled performers utilizing dramatic facial expressions, rhythmic foot movements, graceful wrist and hand gestures and stylized, sculpture-like poses.

"For millennia, dance was performed in temples as a form of worship," explained Vishwa Shanthi's artistic director, Shreelata Suresh. "It served to elevate and give form to the spiritual emotions of temple audiences."

While Bharatanatyam originally evolved as a visual aid to interpreting the sacred Vedic scriptures, it has now developed into an internationally popular form of secular entertainment and even as a medium for commenting on modern social issues, she said.

Vishwa Shanthi's "Samudra Manthan," while deeply rooted in the ancient texts, is designed to be enjoyed and appreciated by audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

"The beauty of the dance-drama is that one does not need to know the intricacies of the dance form," she said. The colorful visuals, enchanting rhythms and magical story appeal to children, she said, and each episode is preceded by an explanatory slide written in English to aid audience members less familiar with the tale.

While Bharatanatyam dances are often solos, with the principal dancer taking on a number of different characters through changes in facial expression and body language, Vishwa Shanthi's show boasts a cast of 35 (including Suresh, who also choreographed it), drawn from local communities. The script was written and composed by Chennai-based poet PR Venkatasubramanian and is sung by Guru V Krishnamoorthi.

"Samudra Manthan" is one of several productions in the repertoire of the San Mateo-based Vishwa Shanthi, which also offers dance instruction for all ages and has as its mission to present fresh, accessible interpretations based in tradition.

"Vishwa Shanthi means 'universal peace,' and we seek to promote peace through dance, yoga and allied arts," Suresh said. "So while keeping the spiritual core, we encourage the broad appeal and performance of Bharatanatyam in the modern world."

Fifty percent of proceeds from ticket sales at the Nov. 1 production will go to World Arts West, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes diversity in the arts and connects a number of Northern California dance companies representing a wide variety of international dance forms.

And with Vishwa Shanthi's "Samudra Manthan," the cultural immersion doesn't just stop with the performance itself.

"There will be Indian food, arts and crafts also, so that you enjoy a full Indian experience," she said. "The audience will see Indian mythology come alive."

What: "Samudra Manthan: Churning of the Milk Ocean"

Where: Woodside Theater, 199 Churchill Ave., Woodside

When: Sun., Nov. 1, noon and 4 p.m.

Cost: $10-$50

Info: Go to goo.gl/9424Fv or call 650-248-3269.

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